Kevin Allen: Second interview, by Bob Morris

Allen, KevinKevin Allen is Founder & Chairman of business transformation company, [re:kap], that counts Burberry, M&C Saatchi, Nokia, Omnicom, Rolls-Royce, Smythson and Swedbank among its global clients. He spent over two decades on the front lines of business development at the top of advertising giants McCann-WorldGroup, the Interpublic Group and Lowe Worldwide and is recognized as one of the advertising industry’s most accomplished growth professionals. He worked with such brands as MasterCard—developing the globally famous “Priceless” campaign—Microsoft, Marriott, Smith Barney, Nestle, L’Oreal, Lufthansa and Johnson and Johnson, and was an early part of Rudy Giuliani’s team that prepared the way for the successful Mayoral election and turnaround strategies for the City of New York.

Kevin is a highly skilled growth professional and is uniquely positioned to teach companies and individuals how to win. His published works include The Hidden Agenda: A Proven Way to Win Business and Create a Following and, more recently, The Case of the Missing Cutlery: A Leadership Course for the Rising Star (Bibliomotion, April 2013).

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write The Case of the Missing Cutlery?

Allen: As a sensitive and highly intuitive person in the command-and-control corporate world, I always felt miscast. But what I’ve come to realize is that emotional intelligence, which I define as buoyancy, was the only way I knew how to lead, and is, in my option, the only way to inspire real change.

For so long, companies were run using a command-and-control, ‘top down’ hierarchical method that involved dictating down the command chain and maintaining order. What I’ve witnessed in our time is evolving democratization, a shift to a demand economy accelerated by technological advancements like social media.

The timing is right to offer a fresh perspective on management, particularly to a new generation of individuals rising to senior positions, who understand the nature of this new economy but weren’t provided with the leadership principles necessary to mobilize an organization from the bottom-up.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Allen: I think my revelation has more to do with the reaction to the book. We’ve received a whole array of “Thank you for this,” and “We feel empowered by this,” and “Finally, we don’t have to be someone we’re not in order to lead.”

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Allen: There was a significant difference between how the book was structured and what I had originally envisioned. I ended up dividing it into two parts. The entire book was to be a course in buoyancy, but I realized that “The Case of the Missing Cutlery” was such a compelling case history. So I decided to present the case, and then the lesson. I think what’s important it that it’s not a fancy-schmancy business school case study, but something that the audience can relate to, maybe from earlier on in their career.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a Buoyant Leader?

Allen: Buoyancy is a phenomenon whereby, as a leader, you float because the people you inspired believe that you should, because you’ve truly connected with the collective desires and values of the people you lead. Empathy is the key here, as is authenticity. When your people have determined that you understand their lies in their hearts and are dedicated to their functional wellbeing, they will compensate for your weaknesses and shore up your strengths.

Leadership is not about sitting and presiding, it’s about a going somewhere. To be buoyant, you must not only ignite passion around a common quest, you must also mobilize your team to take a journey with you toward a common destination, or what I call a “real ambition.”

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which buoyant leadership is most likely to thrive?

Allen: An important concept in this regard is, “cultural permission”, which is the tone that is set inside an organization that shapes the very behavior of the employees in an organization. Fact is, we don’t think about it very often, but the phrases and language used everyday in an organization can in fact affect the way your team makes decisions and conducts themselves.

Think back to the days of Enron, where phrases like “Rank and Yank” and “Money is what matters” were coming out of the executive suite. These phrases were embedded into the workplace culture and being interpreted as permission to do some pretty terrible things.

But what can be seeds of destruction can also be seeds of greatness. For example, phrases like “It can be done, and it will be done,” which I heard from Rudy Giuliani while serving on the team that helped turn around New York City, influenced people to perform incredible feats, all within a culture of doing good.

Morris: By what process did you formulate the ACTION Model?

Allen: By panicking and screwing up early in my career!

Morris: What most significantly differentiates it from other leadership development models?

Allen: The purpose of the ACTION Model is to give you a series of steps you can use in a crisis, so you don’t panic and run off in a million directions. The secret is to be prepared, to draw on the strengths of the people around you, and most importantly, to instill confidence that your team will step up and find a solution.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Case of the Missing Cutlery, please explain what valuable business lessons can be learned from what you identify as a “true tale.”

Allen: The Case of the Missing Cutlery comes from my early days as an assistant manager of a Marriott International airline catering facility at JFK airport in New York City. This was not the peanut packet-per-passenger service they have today- in those days every passenger were served some sort of hot meal with gleaming cutlery. One day we had a surprise visit from a VIP at our largest client, who demanded that we investigate why they were losing cutlery by the thousands. I volunteered to look into it and discovered that the cutlery was coming out of the machine still stained, and because the workers were so fearful of returning dirty forks and knives, they felt they had no choice but to throw it away. Instead of yelling at them, or worse, firing them, I decided that we would solve the problem together, and we did.

What I learned was that once you reach people on an authentic emotional level, they will reward your faith in them with their belief in you, and they will mobilize to get the job done. I learned that in every situation you will find who I call catalysts and resistors, and you must energize your catalysts, and neutralize- or better yet, convert- your resistors. And most of all, I learned that once you demonstrate to your team that you put them on the same plane of priority as yourself, you will create an environment, and a culture that will make your entire organization flourish.

Morris: Here’s one of several dozen passages that caught my eye: “Setbacks are not exceptions; they are an inextricable part of your journey. The secret is not to treat them as wild exceptions. Prepare well and be measured in your response. When setbacks come, and they will, be mindful of your real ambition and that the eyes of your team are upon you.”

According to Thomas Edison, he and his research associates encountered thousands of setbacks and he viewed each as a precious learning opportunity. Obviously you agree.

Allen: As I was coming up in business, screwing up was not an option in any form. They were career-negating moments, and the legacy of that pervades many organizations. Survival in the demand economy depends on and requires experimentation, risk taking, and trial and error. The only way that happens is with a culture of permission that comes directly from the top, but always mindful of the importance and clarity of the organization’s real ambition, so that people are defining their position in the company with that real ambition in mind.

Morris: I share your high regard for Dan Goleman and his breakthrough research on the importance of emotional intelligence. Please explain why empathy is so essential to effective leadership, especially during a “sink or swim” crisis.

Allen: At the end of the day it’s really easy to be a great leader when things are going well. The real test, whether or not you believe in being an emotionally intelligent leader, is when things go wrong. Maintaining patience, being generous, and helping your peers takes time, and no small amount of emotional fortitude. But it brings an exponential difference in your team’s ability to problem-solve.

Morris: In my review of the book for various Amazon websites, I recalled a moment long ago when, after delivering a lecture on transcendentalism in Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed to answer a few questions. An old grizzled farmer stood up, hat in hand, and asked, “How do you transcend an empty stomach?” In your opinion, what is the relevance of this incident to buoyant leadership?

Allen: I’m always amazed that skeptics seem to think that a buoyant leader or one who leads through emotional intelligence is somehow soft or the whole thing is “kumbaya.” The case is clear for the power of emotional intelligence to render people more confident, more effective, more resilient, and more focused on a task than any other form of human motivation.

Morris: Throughout history, there have been so many buoyant leaders. Five immediately come to mind and I now ask you to share your thoughts about each. First, Moses

Allen: All buoyant leaders are driven by a real ambition- that is, what is being created that didn’t exist before- and one criteria for that real ambition, is that on initial inspection, it seems fundamentally impossible.

Morris: Next, George Washington

Allen: I did a bit of reading on him, by coincidence, quite recently. I was struck by one of his supreme characteristics- his patience.

Morris: Then, Abraham Lincoln

Allen: True buoyant leaders can never communicate in percentage points, or charts and figures. First and foremost, they must be storytellers, communicating with their hearts, not heads. His storytelling ability was legend.

Morris: Also, Winston Churchill

Allen: There are two things that strike me about Churchill: first, in setting his real ambition, which is best illustrated by the famous speech to the House of Commons, which included the much recognized “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on landing grounds”, etc. is an illustration of the fact that Mr. Churchill connected truly to what was in the hearts of the British people, which is what a buoyant leader does. Second, one of his most famous quotes is about making mistakes and learning from them. He wasn’t shy to admit when things went wrong.

Morris: Finally, Nelson Mandela

Allen: Mandela stands alone in possessing all of the qualities of these other great men, but has one quality which is transcendent… his ability to forgive and to place others above himself.

Morris: I selected an observation by Jack Dempsey to serve as the title of my reviews for Amazon: “Champions get up when they can’t.” In your opinion, to what extent (f any) is that statement relevant to buoyant leadership? Please explain.

Allen: Buoyant leadership is not a management technique, it’s a leadership principle based on the belief that leading isn’t presiding, it’s taking people on a journey, and on any hero’s journey there will be a setback. My grandfather used to say to me when I was a boy, “Getting knocked down is no big prize — it’s getting up that’s the real trick.” I couldn’t agree more.

Morris: Steven Wright observes, “The early bird may get the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” I am reminded of that observation when observing companies whose leaders make hasty, ill-advised decisions when responding to a perceived opportunity. I agree that buoyancy is invaluable when coping with a crisis but I think it can also be invaluable when thinking about launching a new product, entering a new market, acquiring another company, etc.

Here’s my question: How specifically can buoyancy enable leaders to make sound decisions when tempted by what Peter Ducker once characterized as “the sirens’ song of opportunity”?

Allen: I love that quote from Steven Wright. One of the things I observed is the inherent pressure of command-and-control managers to be seen as making decisions. I’ve sat in meeting after meeting over some form of crisis with very little consideration given to context and true underlying causes of a problem. Then orders were being barked out all in the name of being seen as having control, when in fact nothing was being solved.

Change management is kind of a weird concept to me. We can’ t control events any more than we can control the weather. But we control how we deal with it and we can control the opportunities that these moments of change create.

Morris: How specifically have you developed buoyancy during the course of your career?

Allen: Inevitably in my career of 35 years, I was in one turnaround circumstance after another, and I was personally put in positions of significant responsibility but without complete authority over everyone that needed to be mobilized. What I had to do instead was mobilize people, not by wagging a finger, telling them what to do, but to inspire them to join me.

Morris: How best to help develop it in one’s associates?

Allen: One of my great mistakes coming up, since I was a kid from wrong side of the tracks, and fearful that I might be seen as wanting leadership-wise, was to be someone I was not. When the great Bill Genge of Ketchum told me to step out behind pinstripes suit and be the goofy kid I was, it was best advice. You can’t mobilize people and connect with them authentically when they can’t see the true you.

Morris: When (if ever) can buoyancy be self-defeating?

Allen: As buoyancy is not contrary to other characteristics of leadership, including decisiveness, accountability and performance standards, the answer is that I don’t ever think it can be self-defeating.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a buoyant workplace?

Allen: Freedom from fear

Morris: In you opinion, how best to [begin italics] establish [end italics] such a workplace environment?

Allen: First, define your credo- the belief system of the organization. Secondly, define your real ambition, or where do you want to go as a collective community.

Morris: How best to sustain one?

Allen: By becoming as “Chief Belief Officer”; by constant evangelizing, communicating and reminding of the real ambition the group sets out to achieve and a clear accountability system of those tasked of achieving it.

Morris: What are the symptoms of the workplace within which there is little (if any) buoyancy?

Allen: Fear, blame, and self-preservation.

Morris: Of all the organizations with which you are personally familiar, which has the most buoyant workplace environment? Please explain.

Allen: Unequivocally, without fear or hesitation, it’s Angela Ahrendts’ at Burberry, which I had the privilege to witness. Angela is, to me, a true embodiment of a buoyant leader- thoughtful, intuitive, and people-centric while being decisive and purposeful. With her leadership and the creation of their real ambition, this amazing team has been able to propel the Burberry brand forward while still maintaining its venerable heritage.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Buoyant Leader, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Allen: I believe that the establishment of a real ambition, a powerfully galvanizing and exciting vision of what a group is setting out to create, is vitally important. It is so easy to “calibrate” -that is, given the pressures on a smaller company to redefine in less ambitious terms- that which you are in business to accomplish. The moment this happens the downward spiral begins.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Allen: When you were being critiqued in your early career for not being a tough guy and perhaps not having the ability to bark orders, do you at all feel vindicated? The answer is, not only do I feel a sense of vindication, I actually feel a sense of joy knowing that being the unique amazing person that you are, leading through buoyancy, is actually a winning formula.

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To read my first interview of Kevin, please click here.

Kevin invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

[re:kap] link

Kevin’s Amazon page

bibliomotion link

YouTube (“Big Speak”) video link

Kevin’s LinkedIn link

AdWeek video link

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